Politics & Government

Tribes, environmental groups likely to unite behind carbon tax initiative for 2018

A rift between tribal leaders and an environmental group that threatened to fracture support for a initiative to tax carbon emissions is healing.
A rift between tribal leaders and an environmental group that threatened to fracture support for a initiative to tax carbon emissions is healing. thinkstockphotos.com

A rift between leaders of two influential tribes and an environmental group is on the mend, likely resulting in a muscular coalition behind a 2018 ballot measure to create a statewide tax on carbon emissions.

Representatives from the Quinault Indian Nation and the Tulalip Tribes of Washington said Thursday their tribes expect to join the efforts of the Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy after the group tweaked its original plan for combating climate change.

The move is a reversal from earlier this year, when the same tribes announced they would split from the alliance and run their own ballot measure if the blocs could not reconcile their visions for a carbon tax. That could have fractured supporters and lowered the chances of either measure being approved.

Some final specifics need to be worked out, but Matthew Randazzo, the Quinault Nation’s lead consultant on the project, said the tribe reached an agreement in principle to combine forces. Les Parks, a Tulalip tribal council member and treasurer, said his tribe is in roughly the same position.

“This is a very rare example of a major Indian nation saying exactly what was going wrong and people listening and fixing it,” Randazzo said.

Alliance leaders have hoped they can unite members of the business community, tribes and environmental groups behind one proposal in January so they can begin collecting signatures quickly. The measure would need nearly 260,000 signatures by July to qualify for the ballot in November 2018.

The alliance is comprised of representatives from businesses, unions, minority communities, the health-care industry and others.

Originally, Quinault President Fawn Sharp said the alliance did not seek feedback from Native American tribes while developing its carbon-tax plan.

Quinault leaders wrote a letter outlining several concerns with the climate group’s working proposal. For example, the tribal leaders said the alliance’s planned carbon tax would be too low and that not enough of the revenue from it would pay for environmental conservation projects.

Sharp was not available for an interview Thursday.

The letter from Sharp and other Quinault leaders sparked talks between the alliance and tribal representatives and changes to the carbon-tax proposal.

The final price on pollution remains in discussion, Randazzo said.

Tribal leaders wanted the tax to start at $25 per metric ton of greenhouse gas emissions and increase each year based on inflation and other factors. In a Sept. 8 letter, the tribe said the alliance had been talking about charging a tax of $15 per metric ton of emissions.

But the alliance did commit to some of Sharp’s goals, such as spending more revenue from the carbon tax on clean water and forest health projects.

The alliance had said 30 percent of the tax’s more than $1 billion per year in revenue should go to that goal — a number Quinault leaders said fell short of what is needed to preserve salmon habitat and reduce wildfire risk.

The alliance planned to have 70 percent of revenue for the tax go toward clean energy projects such as mass transit, solar and wind power.

In a Dec. 5 letter to Sharp and Marie Zackuse, chairwoman of the Tulalip Tribes, the alliance didn’t specifically state how much more money it planned to shift toward conservation projects.

Yet the alliance wrote, “there are a number of creative ways to restructure our current policy to increase the natural resource investments beyond what was allocated in past drafts of the Alliance policy.”

The letter to tribal leaders did note the alliance believes “more dialogue on the issue is needed,” given the alliance has other “chronically underfunded priorities” such as clean energy.

“What both parties realized was that our interests in accelerating the transition off dirty energy and toward a clean energy future are aligned,” Becky Kelley, co-chair of the alliance’s steering committee, said in an interview. “In the process, there is a lot of important work to be done for Washington’s natural resources.”

Kelley is also the president of the Washington Environmental Council.

Of the money generated by the carbon tax, the alliance agreed to earmark 10 percent to pay for clean energy and conservation projects supported by tribal governments.

It also agreed to use money from the carbon tax to fund projects that directly aid tribes, such as helping the Quinault Nation and other coastal tribes relocate villages outside of tsunami danger zones and paying for inland tribes to fight wildfires in the face of climate change.

The exact amount that would go to those projects is undecided, Randazzo said. But it’s clear the alliance has included significant input from tribes, paving the way to an agreement, he said.

“A carbon tax initiative is a big statement — Washington going toward a green movement — and we want to make sure tribes are inserted into that process somehow,” Parks said.

The alliance and the two tribes aren’t the only ones interested in passing a carbon tax. Gov. Jay Inslee proposed one as part of his 2018 supplemental budget plan, although the specifics of the proposal have yet to be released.

Some are skeptical such a tax could pass in the Legislature, which Democrats narrowly control. Many Republicans have objected to the idea, saying they believe it would kill jobs without making an earnest dent in climate change.

In a statement after Inslee’s budget proposal, Senate Minority Leader Mark Schoesler, R- Ritzville, said a carbon tax “would force companies who employ workers around the state to move overseas, costing many Washington families their jobs.”

The alliance’s letter says a ballot measure to enact a carbon tax also is “likely to draw large-scale, well-funded opposition.”

The group said teaming up with tribes is a step toward overcoming that opposition.

“We all recognize it’s in our shared interest to make this push together,” Kelley said.

Walker Orenstein: 360-786-1826, @walkerorenstein